National Security

Playing Politics With Refugees

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Haitian Residents Receive Shelter Packages
Haitian Residents Receive Shelter Packages
Haitian residents receive shelter packages and water distributed by the International Organization for Migration in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Feb. 24, 2010, during Operation Unified Response. United Nation peacekeepers from Jordan helped run the distribution operation. | Photo: James Faddis | Ioms, Refugee, Resources, Organization, United States,

Humanitarian Interests Take A Back Seat To Defying Trump

Reports from Geneva this morning (June 29, 2018) indicate that, to signal its disapproval of Trump Administration policies, a political-level assembly of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has eliminated U.S. citizen Ken Isaacs from the list of candidates to be new IOM Director General. Where could the weight of this development fall most heavily? In IOM's refugee camps.

IOM is the infantry of refugee processing. It is not a flawless organization, but IOM personnel are the vital problem-solvers, the real-life "MacGyvers" who move people and their belongings by boat, truck, and aircraft from conflict zones to temporary processing centers, enroute to new lives in receiving countries.

IOM's most important work is done in some of the world's most inhospitable places, far from the Klieg lights. IOM was born after WWII and its first task was resettlement of millions of persons displaced by Nazi aggression. Almost continuously since 1951, a U.S. citizen has been at the IOM helm as Director General. Apparently, that streak ended today in Geneva.

Why does it matter? U.S. citizen Directors General at IOM help open doors to U.S. resources for refugee operations; not only dollars, but also U.S. government personnel who are forward-deployed to remote refugee processing centers to perform screening and other clearance tasks.

Here at home, the Departments of State and Homeland Security also devote people and taxpayer resources to ensuring that IOM operates securely, transparently, and efficiently. These U.S. officials enable movements of refugees who are genuinely eligible for admission to receiving countries under the Refugee Convention and its Protocol. They also contribute to U.S. internal security with screening programs.

A lesser known characteristic of IOM is that it works to pay its own way. IOM competes for projects around the world to earn resources to accomplish its mission. My first exposure to IOM came with a 2008 visit to the IOM country office in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. There, IOM had contracted to perform border infrastructure improvement projects on the Kyrgyz-Chinese frontier.

Still, by one estimate, the United States is responsible for a third of IOM's annual budget. It is a safe bet that, today, senior U.S. officials at our missions to the United Nations in New York and Geneva, the State Department, the White House, and the Department of Homeland Security are considering their options on IOM. Worst case would be a cut-off of U.S. resources. For that, IOM's country delegations will be responsible, not President Trump.

I hope that won't happen. IOM's rebuke to the United States is a self-inflicted wound, but it is the brainchild of higher political levels in member country delegations, private aid organizations, and senior international bureaucrats. IOM staff in the field, where the serious work of the Organization is done, ought not be held responsible for the foolishness of virtue-signaling diplomats loafing at the Geneva Kempinski. Neither should refugees.

I don't know Ken Isaacs, but I know Samaritan's Purse from my days working for the late Senator Jesse Helms. That private organization has done as much, if not more, for refugees and displaced persons than most IOM member governments combined. Both Ambassador Bill Swing, IOM's current Director General, and his predecessor are retired U.S. Foreign Service officers. Both had distinguished careers, and both have significant experience in refugee matters. But I have no quarrel with the Trump Administration's decision to put forward a non-Foreign Service nominee to succeed Ambassador Swing. Mr. Isaacs is a seasoned hand in the field too.

Now, with only two individuals remaining in the race to succeed Ambassador Swing -- someone identified in press reports as a Portuguese "socialist" and a Costa Rican IOM bureaucrat -- global refugee processing may be on the verge of discovering what a loss of U.S. resources means.

IOM's politicized leadership should reverse course and amend IOM bylaws for an election do-over in favor of Mr. Isaacs. More likely, however, IOM field missions will have to adapt to turmoil created by delegations that barnstormed into Geneva this week itching to poke the U.S. in the eye. Those delegations will return to capitals soon, but IOM's field staff and the refugees they serve won't.

I hope our government will keep its cool over today's insult. I hope the United States will protect IOM from its own unserious member countries by remaining closely engaged in the Organization's work. That work is humanitarian, necessary, and noble, and our nation does it well.

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Updated Jan 2, 2019 12:26 PM EST | More details


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